Why Family Dinnertime Matters for Anxious Children

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With daily activities that can range from soccer practice to after-school band, the American family may treat regularly eating dinner together as an afterthought. But families would be doing their anxious children, and all their children, a world of good if they put regular family dinnertime front and center.

The Benefits

The act of sitting down together as a family and sharing a meal can be particularly beneficial for anxious children, who can sometimes forget to eat simply because they don’t feel hungry. A regular family dinnertime ensures your anxious child enjoys regular nourishment, along with a consistent routine.

Routines are known for reducing anxiety by providing a set schedule that makes life more predictable. When your anxious child knows family dinnertime is coming at the same time every day, the sense of order can bring comfort.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse additionally notes families that make a point of regularly eating dinner together end up with adolescents and children who are:

Less prone to engage in risky behaviors, such as:

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Taking drugs
  • Engaging in sex

More prone to engage in beneficial social behaviors, such as:

  • Attending school
  • Earning high grades

The Reasons

Psychology Today contributor Robyn Fivush, Ph.D., and her colleague Marshall Duke were most interested in the impact family dinnertime had on adolescents’ behaviors. So they sought to find out what magic ingredient family dinners contained that had the power to make a difference.

The pair asked a sample of American families from a variety of different backgrounds, ethnicities and races to record what they chatted about at dinner. The families had anywhere from one to six children, with at least one child in the adolescent age range.

They found a typical dinner conversation is packed with stories, with one generally being told every five minutes. About 50 percent of the stories contained an anecdote about a family member’s day, while the other half was family stories, or tales about a past event in which various members had participated.

Different family members contributed to the family stories, each adding their own comments and memories. The end result was a table surrounded by emotionally engaged family members who were definitely enjoying themselves.

The Impact

The stories, however, did much more than simply amuse the brood. Researchers found the stories had a particularly positive impact on adolescent family members. The impact was evident when the adolescents’ well-being was measured, with adolescents from families that told plenty of stories enjoying:

  • Higher levels of self-esteem
  • Increased sense of social competence
  • Enhanced academic performance
  • Few signs of anxiety, withdrawal, depression or other internalizing behavioral issues
  • Few signs of aggression, substance abuse or other externalizing behavioral issues

No matter how busy or harried your schedule may be, planning regular family dinners together can bring on myriad benefits. They provide your anxious children with a much-needed routine and chance to chat about their worries while helping to ensure all your children are more likely to avoid negative and engage in positive behaviors.

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